A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 49

   

He was as startled to see me as I was to see him; he jerked back, and glanced hastily over his shoulder. I looked in the same direction, and caught sight of Robert Howe and Cornelius Harnett, making off in the opposite direction. Clearly, the three of them had been conferring secretly behind the laburnum bush.

“Mrs. Fraser,” he said, with a short bow. “Your servant.”

I curtsied in return, with a vague murmur of politeness. I would have slithered past him, but he leaned toward me, preventing my exit.

“I hear that your husband is collecting guns, Mrs. Fraser,” he said, his voice at a low and rather unfriendly pitch.

“Oh, really?” I was holding an open fan, as was every other woman there. I waved it languidly before my nose, hiding most of my expression. “Who told you such a thing?”

“One of the gentlemen whom he approached to that end,” Forbes said. The lawyer was large and somewhat overweight; the unhealthy shade of red in his cheeks might be due to that, rather than to displeasure. Then again . . .

“If I might impose so far upon your good nature, ma’am, I would suggest that you exert your influence upon him, so as to suggest that such a course is not the wisest?”

“To begin with,” I said, taking a deep breath of hot, damp air, “just what course do you think he’s embarked upon?”

“An unfortunate one, ma’am,” he said. “Putting the best complexion upon the matter, I assume that the guns he seeks are intended to arm his own company of militia, which is legitimate, though disturbing; the desirability of that course would rest upon his later actions. But his relations with the Cherokee are well-known, and there are rumors about that the weapons are destined to end in the hands of the savages, to the end that they may turn upon His Majesty’s subjects who presume to offer objection to the tyranny, abuse, and corruption so rife among the officials who govern—if so loose a word may be employed to describe their actions—this colony.”

I gave him a long look over the edge of my fan.

“If I hadn’t already known you were a lawyer,” I remarked, “that speech would have done it. I think that you just said that you suspect my husband of wanting to give guns to the Indians, and you don’t like that. On the other hand, if he’s wanting to arm his own militia, that might be all right—providing that said militia acts according to your desires. Am I right?”

A flicker of amusement showed in his deep-set eyes, and he inclined his head toward me in acknowledgment.

“Your perception astounds me, ma’am,” he said.

I nodded, and shut the fan.

“Right. And what are your desires, may I ask? I won’t ask why you think Jamie ought to take heed of them.”

He laughed, his heavy face, already flushed with the heat, going a deeper shade of red beneath his neat tie-wig.

“I desire justice, ma’am; the downfall of tyrants and the cause of liberty,” he said. “As must any honest man.”

. . . freedom alone—which any honest man surrenders only with his life. The line echoed in my head, and must have shown on my face, for he looked keenly at me.

“I esteem your husband deeply, ma’am,” he said quietly. “You will tell him what I have said?” He bowed and turned away, not waiting for my nod.

He hadn’t guarded his voice when speaking of tyrants and liberty; I saw heads nearby turn, and here and there, men drew together, murmuring as they watched him go.

Distracted, I took a mouthful of lemon shrub, and was then obliged to swallow the nasty stuff. I turned to find Jamie; he was still near Allan MacDonald, but had moved a little aside, and was in private conversation with Major MacDonald.

Things were moving faster than I had thought. I had thought republican sentiment was still a minority in this part of the colony, but for Forbes to speak so openly in a public gathering, it was obviously gaining ground.

I turned back to look after the lawyer, and saw two men confront him, their faces tight with anger and suspicion. I was too far away to hear what was said, but their postures and expressions were eloquent. Words were exchanged, growing in heat, and I glanced toward Jamie; the last time I had attended a barbecue like this at River Run, in the prelude to the War of the Regulation, there had been a fistfight on the lawn, and I rather thought such an occurrence might be about to happen again. Alcohol, heat, and politics made for explosions of temper in any gathering, let alone one composed largely of Highlanders.

Such an explosion might have happened—more men were gathering round Forbes and his two opponents, fists curling in readiness—had the boom of Jocasta’s large gong not sounded from the terrace, making everyone look up in startlement.

The Major was standing on an upturned tobacco hogshead, hands raised in the air, beaming at the multitudes, face shining red with heat, beer, and enthusiasm.

“Ceud mile fàilte!” he called, and was greeted by enthusiastic applause. “And we wish a hundred thousand welcomes to our honored guests!” he continued in Gaelic, sweeping a hand toward the MacDonalds, who were now standing side by side near him, nodding and smiling at the applause. From their demeanor, I rather thought they were accustomed to this sort of reception.

A few more introductory remarks—half-drowned in the enthusiastic cheers—and Jamie and Kingsburgh lifted Mrs. MacDonald carefully up onto the barrel, where she swayed a little, but regained her balance, grabbing the heads of both men for stability, and smiling at the laughter of the audience.

She beamed at the crowd, who beamed back, en masse, and immediately quieted themselves in order to hear her.

She had a clear, high voice, and was obviously accustomed to speaking in public—a most unusual attribute in a woman of the time. I was too far away to hear every word, but had no trouble picking up the gist of her speech.

After graciously thanking her hosts, the Scottish community who had welcomed her family so warmly and generously, and the guests, she commenced an earnest exhortation against what she called “factionalism,” urging her hearers to join in suppressing this dangerous movement, which could not but cause great unrest, threatening the peace and prosperity that so many of them had achieved in this fair land, they having risked everything to attain it.

And she was, I realized with a small shock, exactly right. I’d heard Bree and Roger arguing the point—why any of the Highlanders, who had suffered so much under English rule, should have fought on the English side, as many of them eventually would.

“Because,” Roger had said patiently, “they had something to lose, and damn little to gain. And—of all people—they knew exactly what it was like to fight against the English. Ye think folk who lived through Cumberland’s cleansing of the Highlands, made it to America, and rebuilt their lives from nothing were eager to live through all that again?”

“But surely they’ll want to fight for freedom,” Bree had protested. He looked at her cynically.

“They have freedom, a great deal more than they’ve ever seen in Scotland. They risk losing it in the event of a war—and they know that very well. And then, of course,” he’d added, “nearly all of them have sworn an oath of loyalty to the Crown. They’d not break it lightly, surely not for something that looked like one more wild-eyed—and doubtless short-lived—political upheaval. It’s like—” His brow had furrowed as he looked for a suitable analogy.

“Like the Black Panthers, or the civil-rights movement. Anyone could see the idealistic point—but a lot of middle-class people found the whole thing threatening or frightening and just wished it would go away, so life could be peaceful.”

The trouble, of course, was that life never was peaceful—and this particular wild-eyed movement wasn’t going to go away. I could see Brianna on the far side of the crowd, eyes narrowed in thoughtful speculation as she listened to Flora MacDonald’s high, clear voice, talking of the virtues of loyalty.

I heard a low sort of “Hmph!” just to the side, behind me, and turning, saw Neil Forbes, his heavy features set in disapproval. He had reinforcements now, I saw; three or four other gentlemen stood close beside him, glancing to and fro but trying not to look as though they were. Gauging the mood of the crowd, I thought they were outnumbered by roughly two hundred to one, and the two hundred were growing steadily more entrenched in their opinions as the drink took hold and the speech went on.

Looking away, I caught sight again of Brianna, and realized that she was now looking at Neil Forbes, too—and he was looking back. Both taller than the people around them, they stared at each other over the heads of the intervening crowd, he with animosity, she with aloofness. She had rejected his suit a few years before, and had done so without tact. Forbes certainly hadn’t been in love with her—but he was a man with a fair degree of self-esteem, and not the sort to suffer such a public slight with philosophical resignation.

Brianna turned away, coolly, as though she had taken no notice of him, and spoke to the woman beside her. I heard him grunt again, say something in a low tone to his compatriots—and then the knot of them were leaving, rudely turning their backs on Mrs. MacDonald, who was still speaking.

Gasps and murmurs of indignation followed them, as they shoved their way through the thick-packed crowd, but no one offered to stop them, and the offense of their leaving was drowned by the outburst of prolonged applause that greeted the conclusion of the speech—this accompanied by the starting up of bagpipes, the random firing of pistols into the air, organized cheering of “Hip, hip, huzzay!” led by Major MacDonald, and such a general hullabaloo that no one would have noticed the arrival of an army, let alone the departure of a few disaffected Whigs.

I found Jamie in the shade of Hector’s mausoleum, combing out his hair with his fingers, preparatory to retying it.

“That went with a bang, didn’t it?” I asked.

“Several of them,” he said, keeping a wary eye on one obviously inebriated gentleman in the act of trying to reload his musket. “Watch that man, Sassenach.”

“He’s too late to shoot Neil Forbes. Did you see him leave?”

He nodded, deftly knotting the leather thong at his nape.

“He couldna have come much closer to an open declaration, save he’d got up on the barrel next to Fionnaghal.”

“And that would have made him an excellent target.” I squinted at the red-faced gentleman, presently spilling gunpowder on his shoes. “I don’t think he has any bullets.”

“Oh, well, then.” Jamie dismissed him with a wave of the hand. “Major MacDonald’s in rare form, no? He told me he’s arranged for Mrs. MacDonald to give such speeches here and there about the colony.”

“With himself as impresario, I take it.” I could just catch the gleam of MacDonald’s red coat among the press of well-wishers on the terrace.

“I daresay.” Jamie didn’t seem pleased at the prospect. In fact, he seemed rather sober, his face shadowed by dark thoughts. His mood would not be improved by hearing about my conversation with Neil Forbes, but I told him anyway.

“Well, it couldna be helped,” he said with a small shrug. “I’d hoped to keep the matter quiet, but wi’ things as they are wi’ Robin McGillivray, I’ve no real choice save to ask where I may, though that lets the matter be known. And talked about.” He moved again, restless.

“Are ye well, Sassenach?” he asked suddenly, looking at me.

“Yes. But you aren’t. What is it?”

He smiled faintly.

“Och, it’s nothing. Nothing I didna ken already. But it’s different, no? Ye think ye’re ready, and then ye meet it face to face, and would give anything to have it otherwise.”

He looked out at the lawn, lifting his chin to point at the crowd. A sea of tartan flowed across the grass, the ladies’ parasols raised against the sun, a field of brightly colored flowers. In the shade of the terrace, a piper played on, the sound of his piobreachd a thin, piercing descant to the hum of conversation.

“I kent I should have to stand one day against a good many of them, aye? To fight friends and kin. But then I found myself standing there, wi’ Fionnaghal’s hand upon my head like a blessing, face to face wi’ them all, and watching her words fall upon them, see the resolve growing in them . . . and all of a sudden, it was as though a great blade had come down from heaven between them and me, to cleave us forever apart. The day is coming—and I can not stop it.”

He swallowed, and looked down, away from me. I reached out to him, wanting to help, wanting to ease him—and knowing that I couldn’t. It was, after all, by my doing that he found himself here, in this small Gethsemane.

Nonetheless, he took my hand, not looking at me, and squeezed it hard, so the bones pressed together.

“Lord, that this cup might pass from me?” I whispered.

He nodded, his gaze still resting on the ground, the fallen petals of the yellow roses. Then he looked at me, with a small smile but such pain in his eyes that I caught my breath, stricken to the heart.

Still, he smiled, and wiping his hand across his forehead, examined his wet fingers.

“Aye, well,” he said. “It’s only water, not blood. I’ll live.”

Perhaps you won’t, I thought suddenly, appalled. To fight on the winning side was one thing; to survive, quite another.

He saw the look on my face, and released the pressure on my hand, thinking he was hurting me. He was, but not physically.

“But not my will be done, but Thine,” he said very softly. “I chose my way when I wed ye, though I kent it not at the time. But I chose, and cannot now turn back, even if I would.”

“Would you?” I looked into his eyes as I asked, and read the answer there. He shook his head.

“Would you? For you have chosen, as much as I.”

I shook my head, as well, and felt the small relaxation of his body as his eyes met mine, clear now as the brilliant sky. For the space of a heartbeat, we stood alone together in the universe. Then a knot of chattering girls drifted within earshot, and I changed the subject to something safer.

“Have you heard anything about poor Manfred?”

“Poor Manfred, is it?” he gave me a cynical look.

“Well, he may be an immoral young hound, and have caused any amount of trouble—but that doesn’t mean he ought to die for it.”

He looked as though he might not be in complete agreement with this sentiment, but let the matter lie, saying merely that he’d asked, but so far without result.

“He’ll turn up, though,” he assured me. “Likely in the most inconvenient place.”

“Oh! Oh! Oh! That I should live to see such a day! I thank ye, sir, thank ye indeed!” It was Mrs. Bug, flushed with heat, beer, and happiness, fanning herself fit to burst. Jamie smiled at her.

“So, were ye able to hear everything, then, mo chridhe?”

“Oh, indeed I was, sir!” she assured him fervently. “Every word! Arch found me a lovely place, just by one of they tubs o’ wee flowers, where I could hear and not be trampled.” She had nearly died of excitement when Jamie had offered to bring her down to the barbecue. Arch was coming, of course, and would go on to do errands in Cross Creek, but Mrs. Bug hadn’t been off the Ridge since their arrival several years before.

Despite my disquiet over the profoundly Loyalist atmosphere that surrounded us, her bubbling delight was infectious, and I found myself smiling, Jamie and myself taking it in turns to answer her questions: she hadn’t seen black slaves close-to before, and thought them exotically beautiful—did they cost a great deal? And must they be taught to wear clothes and speak properly? For she had heard that Africa was a heathen place where folk went entirely nak*d and killed one another with spears, like as one would do with a boar, and if one wanted to speak of nak*d, that statue of the soldier laddie on the lawn was shocking, did we not think? And him wi’ not a stitch behind his shield! And whyever was that woman’s heid at his feet? And had I looked—her hair was made to look as if ’twere snakes, of all horrid things! And who was Hector Cameron, whose tomb this was?—and made all of white marble, same as the tombs in Holyrood, imagine! Oh, Mrs. Innes’s late husband? And when had she married Mr. Duncan, whom she had met, and such a sweet, kind-eyed man as he was, such a shame as he had lost his arm, was that in a battle of some type? And—oh, look! Mrs. MacDonald’s husband—and a fine figure of man he was, too—was going to talk, as well!

Jamie gave the terrace a bleak look. Sure enough, Allan MacDonald was stepping up—merely onto a stool; no doubt the hogshead seemed extreme—and a number of people—far fewer than had attended his wife, but a respectable number—were clustering round attentively.

“Will ye no come and hear him?” Mrs. Bug was already in flight, hovering above the ground like a hummingbird.

“I’ll hear well enough from here,” Jamie assured her. “You go along then, a nighean.”

She bumbled off, buzzing with excitement. Jamie gingerly touched both hands to his ears, testing to be sure they were still attached.

“It was kind of you to bring her,” I said, laughing. “The dear old thing probably hasn’t had such fun in half a century.”

“No,” he said, grinning. “She likely—”

He stopped abruptly, frowning as he caught sight of something over my shoulder. I turned to look, but he was already moving past me, and I hurried to catch up.

It was Jocasta, white as milk, and disheveled in a way I had never seen her. She swayed unsteadily in the side doorway, and might have fallen, had Jamie not come up and taken quick hold of her, one arm about her waist to support her.

“Jesus, Auntie. What’s amiss?” He spoke quietly, not to draw attention, and was moving her back inside the house even as he spoke.

“Oh, God, oh, merciful God, my head,” she whispered, hand spread over her face like a spider, so that her fingers barely touched the skin, cupping her left eye. “My eye.”

The linen blindfold that she wore in public was creased and blotched with moisture; tears were leaking out from under it, but she wasn’t crying. Lacrimation: one eye was watering terribly. Both eyes were tearing, but much worse on the left; the edge of the linen was soaked, and wetness shone on that cheek.

“I need to look at her eye,” I said to Jamie, touching his elbow, and looking round in vain for any of the servants. “Get her to her sitting room.” That was closest, and all the guests were either outside or traipsing through the parlor to see the Prince’s looking glass.

“No!” It was almost a scream. “No, not there!”

Jamie glanced at me, one brow raised in puzzlement, but spoke soothingly to her.

“Nay, Auntie, it’s all right. I’ll bring ye to your own chamber. Come, then.” He stooped, and lifted her in his arms as though she were a child, her silk skirts falling over his arm with the sound of rushing water.

“Take her; I’ll be right there.” I’d spotted the slave named Angelina passing through the far end of the hall, and hurried to catch her up. I gave my orders, then rushed back toward the stairs—pausing momentarily to glance into the small sitting room as I did so.

There was no one there, though the presence of scattered punch cups and the strong scent of pipe tobacco indicated that Jocasta had likely been holding court there earlier. Her workbasket stood open, some half-knitted garment dragged out and left to dangle carelessly down the side like a dead rabbit.

Children perhaps, I thought; several balls of thread had been pulled out, too, and lay scattered on the parquet floor, trailing their colors. I hesitated—but instinct was too much for me, and I hastily scooped up the balls of thread and dropped them back into the workbasket. I stuffed the knitting in on top, but jerked my hand back with an exclamation.

A small gash on the side of my thumb was welling blood. I put it in my mouth and sucked hard to apply pressure to the wound; meanwhile, I groped more cautiously in the depths of the basket with my other hand, to see what had cut me.

A knife, small but businesslike. Likely used to cut embroidery threads; there was a tooled-leather sheath for it, loose in the bottom of the basket. I slipped the knife back into its sheath, seized the needle case I’d come for, and closed the folding tabletop of the workbasket before hurrying for the stairs.

Allan MacDonald had finished his brief speech; there was a loud clatter of applause outside, with shouts and whoops of Gaelic approval.

“Bloody Scots,” I muttered under my breath. “Don’t they ever learn?”

But I hadn’t time to consider the implications of the MacDonalds’ rabble-rousing. By the time I reached the top of the stair, one slave was close behind me, puffing under the weight of my medicine box, and another was at the bottom, starting more cautiously up with a pan of hot water from the kitchen.

Jocasta was bent double in her big chair, moaning, lips pressed into invisibility. Her cap had come off and both hands moved restlessly to and fro through her disordered hair, as though looking helplessly for something to seize. Jamie was stroking her back, murmuring to her in Gaelic; he looked up with obvious relief as I came in.

I had long suspected that the cause of Jocasta’s blindness was glaucoma—rising pressure inside the eyeball that if untreated eventually damages the optic nerve. Now I was quite sure of it. More than that, I knew what form of the disease she had; she was plainly having an acute attack of closed-angle glaucoma, the most dangerous type.

There was no treatment for glaucoma now; the condition itself wouldn’t be recognized for some time. Even if there had been, it was far too late; her blindness was permanent. There was, however, something I could do about the immediate situation—and I was afraid I’d have to.

“Put some of this to steep,” I said to Angelina, grabbing the jar of goldenseal from my box and thrusting it into her hands. “And you”—I turned to the other slave, a man whose name I didn’t know—“set the water to boil again, fetch me some clean rags, and put them in the water.”

Even as I talked, I’d got out the tiny spirit lamp I carried in my case. The fire had been allowed to burn down on the hearth, but there were still live coals; I bent and lit the wick, then opened the needle case I’d taken from the sitting room and abstracted the largest needle in it, a three-inch length of steel, used for mending carpets.

“You aren’t . . .” Jamie began, then broke off, swallowing.

“I have to,” I said briefly. “There’s nothing else. Hold her hands.”

He was nearly as pale as Jocasta, but he nodded and took hold of the clutching fingers, pulling her hands gently away from her head.

I lifted away the linen bandage. The left eye bulged noticeably beneath its lid, vividly bloodshot. Tears welled up round it and overflowed in a constant stream. I could feel the pressure inside the eyeball, even without touching it, and clenched my teeth in revulsion.

No help for it. With a quick prayer to Saint Clare—who was, after all, patroness of sore eyes, as well as my own patron saint—I ran the needle through the flame of the lamp, poured pure alcohol onto a rag, and wiped the soot from the needle.

Swallowing a sudden excess of saliva, I spread the eyelids of the affected eye apart with one hand, commended my soul to God, and shoved the needle hard into the sclera of the eye, near the edge of the iris.

There was a cough and a splattering on the floor nearby, and the stink of vomit, but I had no attention to spare. I withdrew the needle carefully, though as fast as I could. Jocasta had stiffened abruptly, frozen stiff, hands clawed over Jamie’s. She didn’t move at all, but made small, shocked panting sounds, as though afraid to move enough even to breathe.

There was a trickle of fluid from the eye, vitreous humor, faintly cloudy, just thick enough to be distinguishable as it flowed sluggishly across the wet surface of the sclera. I was still holding the eyelids apart; I plucked a rag from the goldenseal tea with my free hand, squeezed out the excess liquid, careless of where it went, and touched it gently to her face. Jocasta gasped at the touch of the warmth on her skin, pulled her hands free, and grasped at it.

I let go then, and allowed her to seize the warm rag, pressing it against her closed left eye, the heat of it some relief.

Light feet pounded up the stairs again, and down the hall; Angelina, panting, a handful of salt clutched to her bosom, a spoon in her other hand. I brushed the salt from her damp palm into the pan of warm water, and set her to stir it while it dissolved.

“Did you bring laudanum?” I asked her quietly. Jocasta was lying back in her chair, eyes closed—but rigid as a statue, her eyelids squeezing tight, fists clenched in knots on her knees.

“I couldna find the laudanum, missus,” Angelina murmured to me, with a frightened glance at Jocasta. “I dinna ken who could be takin’ it—hain’t nobody got the key but Mr. Ulysses and Miz Cameron herself.”

“Ulysses let you into the simples closet, then—so he knows that Mrs. Cameron is ill?”

She nodded vigorously, setting the ribbon on her cap a-flutter.

“Oh, yes, missus! He be bleezin’, if he find out and I hain’t told him. He say come fetch him quick, she want him—otherwise, I tell Miz Cameron she hain’t to worry none, he take care every single thing.”

Jocasta let out a long sigh at this, her clenched fists relaxing a little.

“God bless the man,” she murmured, eyes closed. “He will take care of everything. I should be lost without him. Lost.”

Her white hair was soaked at the temples, and sweat dripped from the ends of the tendrils that lay over her shoulder, making spots on the dark blue silk of her gown.

Angelina unlaced Jocasta’s gown and stays and got them off. Then I had Jamie lay her down on the bed in her shift, with a thick layer of towels tucked round her head. I filled one of my rattlesnake syringes with the warm salt water, and with Jamie gingerly holding the lids of her eye apart, I was able to gently irrigate the eye, in hopes of perhaps preventing infection to the puncture wound. The wound itself showed as a tiny scarlet spot on the sclera, a small conjunctival bleb above it. Jamie couldn’t look at it without blinking, I saw, and smiled at him.

“She’ll be all right,” I said. “You can go, if you like.”

Jamie nodded, turning to go, but Jocasta’s hand shot out to stop him.

“No, be staying, a chuisle—if ye will.” This last was strictly for form’s sake; she had him clutched by the sleeve, hard enough to turn her fingers white.

“Aye, Auntie, of course,” he said mildly, and put his hand over hers, squeezing in reassurance. Still, she didn’t let go until he had sat down beside her.

“Who else is there?” she asked, turning her head fretfully from side to side, trying to hear the telltale sounds of breathing and movement that would inform her. “Have the slaves gone?”

“Yes, they’ve gone back to help with the serving,” I told her. “It’s only me and Jamie left.”

She closed her eyes and drew a deep, shuddering breath, only then beginning to relax a little.

“Good. I must tell ye a thing, Nephew, and no one else must hear. Niece”—she lifted a long white hand toward me—“go and be seeing as we’re truly alone.”

I went obediently to look out into the hall. No one was visible, though there were voices coming from a room down the hall—laughter, and tremendous rustlings and thumpings, as young women chattered and rearranged their hair and clothing. I pulled my head back in and closed the door, and the sounds from the rest of the house receded at once, muffled into a distant rumble.

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